Juries in recent months have been handing down guilty verdicts against police officers and white vigilantes in a series of rare convictions for a legal system that historically has failed to render justice for Black victims.
Last month, three white men in Georgia were convicted of committing a hate crime when they murdered Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man jogging in their neighborhood. Days later, three former Minneapolis police officers were convicted of violating George Floyd’s civil rights when he died in their custody, a death that previously led to a murder conviction for a fourth officer. And in nearby Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, a police officer was convicted of causing the death of Daunte Wright when she mistook her gun for a Taser.
“These convictions are not perfect, but they foreshadow the possibility of a deeper system of justice to come,” said Melina Abdullah, director of Black Lives Matter Grassroots and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. “The convictions are proof that the years of massive, coordinated protests in cities around the world effectively put pressure on the U.S. government to make moves to hold police and vigilantes alike accountable for the crimes they commit against Black people.”
The recent convictions are a notable deviation for the nation’s criminal justice system, which has codified protections for police officers and has a lengthy track record of soft-pedaling justice for Black victims. Legal experts credit a combination of factors: the elections of progressive prosecutors who are open to charging police officers, a more informed jury pool equipped with video evidence, and fellow officers who have had the courage to speak out against colleagues when they witness misconduct.
At least 159 nonfederal law enforcement officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter related to on-duty shootings since 2005 – and more than a quarter of those charges came in just the past two years, according to research by Philip M. Stinson, a criminal justice program professor with Bowling Green State University.
But convictions are still hard to achieve: Of those 159 charged officers, only 51 have been convicted in their on-duty shootings – 21 by guilty plea, 29 by jury trial, and 1 by bench trial. In 28 of those convictions, the victims were Black, according to Stinson’s research.
While charges appear to be more common in recent years, they are still extremely rare. On average, police fatally shoot roughly 1,000 people per year, according to The Washington Post, and Black people are more than twice as likely to be shot as white people.
Though it’s too early to know whether the convictions of recent weeks are an aberration or a small step toward lasting change, experts say they offer some indication that the social movement has moved the needle toward a more just justice system. The rush to blame police shootings on the victims – labeling them as noncompliant lawbreakers – is being challenged, said Justin Hansford, a Howard University School of Law professor and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center.
“After the George Floyd video, that narrative shifted in many people’s minds and people are willing to look at the evidence with an open mind,” Hansford said. “It was a time when you would rarely see a jury going to convict a police officer, especially down South – and of course, you know the history there. I was very encouraged by those jury verdicts.”
Prosecutors Buck the Status Quo
Before these cases get to jurors, they must pass through the chief prosecutors, who have the power to decide whether charges should be brought against the officers involved. The rarity of convictions against police officers largely comes down to them, legal experts say.
There are over 2,800 elected local and state prosecutors in the country. Leaders of those offices historically have not reflected the demographics of the communities they represent.
“At a big picture level, the thing to remember is anytime there’s discretion in the criminal justice system, that allows for prejudice – prejudice for or against different groups of people,” said David Wolitz, an associate professor at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law.
On top of that lack of representation, prosecutors are also influenced by the fact that they work closely with police on a daily basis, legal experts say. And when they do charge officers, the cases they lay out in court can be less than stellar.
But in recent years, more voters have decided to elect prosecutors who campaign against the status quo. The election of progressive prosecutors – many of them Black and other people of color – has made a dent in how police officers are held accountable, said Irving Joyner, a professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law.
“You had to browbeat prosecutors to investigate crimes against African Americans. … Those cases were not brought to the public’s attention. Jurors were not empanelled to listen to and hear the evidence,” Joyner said. “That has changed to the benefit of our system and now there are prosecutors in place who are not playing by the old playbook that has been in place.”
Among those prosecutors is John J. Choi, county attorney for Ramsey County, Minnesota. He was in office when Philando Castile was fatally shot by police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop in July 2016. Choi said he charged Yanez with second-degree manslaughter after reviewing the evidence and listening to the audio from the stop.
Castile – whose girlfriend and her young daughter were also in the car – told Yanez that he had a weapon in the car and that he wasn’t going to pull it out. Choi, who implemented a policy to stop prosecuting certain traffic stops after Castile’s death, said he heard the “sincerity” in Castile’s voice during the encounter, as opposed to the escalating actions of Yanez, who drew his weapon and opened fire.
“The officer, in his mind, races to the place where somehow Philando Castile is going to kill him – and he’s got a 4-year-old in the backseat, a woman in the passenger seat. Why would any human being do that?” Choi said. “It was Philando who was trying to deescalate the situation.”
A prosecutor in Choi’s office took the case to trial in May 2017. Ultimately, Yanez was found not guilty – a decision that Choi, who was the first Korean-American chief prosecutor voted into office in the country, still hasn’t grasped.
There have been similar outcomes in other recent cases: Michael Rosfeld, an officer in East Pittsburgh, was acquitted in the 2018 shooting death of Antwon Rose II, and Oklahoma officer Betty Jo Shelby was acquitted for the 2016 death of Terence Crutcher.
Nonetheless, Choi says he is encouraged by the “evolution” of progressive prosecutors who are getting elected across the country and are “willing to take on these cases” that were once thought as “really hard to prove.”
Sometimes, that willingness has come amid public pressure, often sparked by viral videos of Black people killed on camera. Video of Floyd’s death led to worldwide demonstrations as protesters chanted some of his final words, “I can’t breathe” – echoing the rallying cry for demonstrators after the July 2014 death of Eric Garner at the hands of police in Staten Island, New York.
But the outcome this time was different: In Garner’s case, no charges were brought against the officers involved in his death, and five years of fighting passed before one was fired. In Floyd’s case, all four officers were fired a day after the incident and charges came within a week.
In Arbery’s case, it took more than two months for charges to be filed, and only after two prosecutors recused themselves from the case. The three white men who chased and killed Arbery went free for weeks until a video of the shooting went public. Two days later, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepped in and filed murder charges. And almost a year after his death, the Justice Department filed federal hate crime charges against the trio.
Without calls for justice from Arbery’s mother and civil rights advocates – as well as ongoing protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement – there’s no telling if charges would have been filed at all, said Joyner, who practiced law for 43 year also as a civil rights attorney.
“This push resulted from the lack of confidence in the system, but I think that level of confidence is rising now in some places. We see even in the South that justice can be achieved where there is an intent to apply the rules equally across racial lines,” he said.
Raising the Pressure
After cellphone footage of Michael Brown’s dead body lying in the street went viral in 2014, protests ignited in Ferguson, Missouri, and nationwide. But Bob McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor at the time, later announced that a grand jury had declined to file charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Brown.
In the next election, Wesley Bell – a former public defender – defeated McCulloch to become the first Black prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County.
“Constituents are putting more pressure on their elected officials and their leaders to hold individuals accountable,” said Bell. “For anyone, just like any of us, if you commit a crime or if I committed a crime, we’re going to be held accountable and that should be true for anyone.”
But Bell soon showed that indicting police officers remains challenging. After reinvestigating Brown’s death, he chose not to indict Wilson. Bell would not go into detail about that decision, but at the time, he said charging Wilson “would violate the ethical standards of my profession.”
“When you don’t have the evidence and you have to tell the family that you can’t push the case, it can be the worst job,” he said. “At the end of the day, you just gotta do what’s right.”
Bell has charged other police officers for their conduct during his tenure. In one case, he implemented “restorative justice” mediation – an alternative to prosecution in which felony charges were dropped against the police officer after she apologized in a video conference to the woman whom she shot in the back.
Since Brown, Garner, and Floyd, Bell said he has spoken to many law enforcement officers who say they no longer can stand by and allow other officers’ actions to define their entire departments.
During the trial for Floyd’s murder, several of Chauvin’s former colleagues, including his former police chief, broke the infamous “blue wall of silence” to testify against him – an act that Bell says “builds trust in the justice system.”
“For far too long, there are many communities that have never had that trust and good relationships with law enforcement,” Bell said. “It was hard to argue around. It was so clear. Seeing someone die in front of you, as they call out for their mother, it’s hard to get around that and I think those officers felt compelled to speak out.”
While much attention is paid to jurors’ race in these cases, legal experts say that the juries are a small factor in the recent run of convictions. The jurors were mostly white in the successful prosecutions for the deaths of Floyd, Arbery and Wright.
Choi said he believes that some jurors have changed hearts and minds and are “choosing to see the evidence in a different way,” without reforming laws already in place.
“Not too long ago, we just didn’t have body-worn camera evidence, and so, before, we were subject to only have in front of us … testimony that came from police, as well as any witnesses,” Choi said. “But oftentimes in the police-involved fatalities, the only witnesses are the police because often the person who’s the victim is dead.”
In all of the recent convictions, Hansford notes, trial prosecutors were able to present compelling evidence of the defendant’s ill intentions – body camera footage, cellphone videos, social media posts, text messages and witness testimony. Any juror who takes their oath seriously could not deny voting for a guilty verdict, he said.
Joyner added that it really takes a strong case before the trial to ensure a conviction.
“To me, that’s the key to the whole thing: strong prosecution, strong investigation, and then competent presentation of the evidence to the jury,” he said. “More often than not, that is going to result in the right decision.”